The Nation's Pulse

A Cook’s Vocabulary

Why don't most people cook better than they do?

By 10.19.07

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My sister had come for a quick weekend visit. Not unusually, by dinnertime we hadn't had a moment to get out and shop for food. So I made something -- can't even remember what, a salad, a pasta -- out of what we had in the refrigerator.

It was good. In fact, it was delicious.

"How does he do that?" my sister asked.

A BETTER QUESTION WOULD BE: Why don't most people cook better than they do? Call it lack of vocabulary.

Visit many people's kitchens and try to cook something. Is there olive oil? No. Any fresh herbs? No. Lemons or limes? No. Whole pepper, to be cracked or crushed? None of that, either. Balsamic vinegar, either red or white? No. Cooking wine, or clear broths? No to both.

Absent those elements, and others like them, cooking resembles a language of nothing but nouns.

Plus, many people don't have cutting boards or good knives.

WHEN I LIVED IN SAN FRANCISCO, I used to go eat dinner every Friday at a luncheonette on Union Square called Little Joe's. I went for the calamari, Friday's special. I would linger, and watch Paolo, the cook, work right in front of me. Paolo produced big, hearty, single dish peasant meals, all served over one or another kind of pasta. And he did it all with no more than half a dozen ingredients: red and white wine, a thick beef broth, onions and garlic, a thin tomato sauce. His only tools were an eight-inch chef's knife and a wooden spoon. He cleaned his pans with coarse salt, rubbing them with rags and dumping the residue on the floor -- where it fell through a rubber gridwork on which he and his helper stood.

Pick up the gridwork, hose it off, and mop the floor -- that was the nightly cleanup.

Paolo was fast, and his food tasted great.

I SYMPATHIZE WITH PEOPLE who say they're too busy to cook. I have never met anyone, bachelor or bachelorette, who doesn't like to eat. There has to be a better way than the microwave, or lettuce and tomato salads with bottled dressings.

Get a vocabulary. Try this: mince garlic and shallot into a fry pan in a tablespoon or two of olive oil. When they start to fizz, drizzle a little red balsamic vinegar in the pan. Scout your refrigerator for leftover veggies: tomatoes, green beans, chickpeas, peppers, nearly anything. Add them to the pan. Add a little chicken broth (which you can buy in re-usable containers) and cooking wine. Finish it off with fresh cracked pepper, minced lemon zest, and a half a handful of chopped Italian parsley, which will keep for weeks.

Serve it over a favorite pasta. Sprinkle on some grated romano cheese. The basic step here, the basic vocabulary, is "caramelizing." That's what you did when you added balsamic vinegar to the shallots and garlic and let it cook down a bit.

Fool around with that basic step. Add minced lunchmeats, or leftover steak, with big pieces of tomato. Try different herbs. For solo shoppers, Italian parsley, oregano, and rosemary keep the longest. Cilantro and basil will get old sooner.

You could serve this concoction over rice as well, or over couscous, which is available in all kinds of varieties, and cooks just about as fast as you can boil water.

This is fun, and it doesn't have to take a lot of time. The first time you really please yourself, you'll be hooked. And it'll be goodbye to the microwave and the bottle.

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About the Author

Lawrence Henry writes every week from North Andover, Massachusetts.